Jean Barker

Tidying up after our gods

2013-05-10 12:30

Jean Barker

A lot of greater Los Angeles is not particularly glamorous. Strip mall after strip mall. Flat. Paved. Horizontal. Boring. I was never surprised that Charlize Theron felt at home here. It's just like Benoni (okay, maybe with a little less character).

It's a charmingly run-down reality version of what you see in soap operas. It's all about lawns, swimming pools and luxuries you can't have in New York. It's a windless, weatherless idyll so perfect for movie making - or being homeless on the streets after all your dreams are dead, of course.

But what they don't tell you on TV is how insanely noisy and wasteful the idealised desert oasis is. The price of perfection is pollution - and environmental destruction.

Property prices in greater LA go up in direct relation to the greenness of people's lawns. Since the average 2-bed, low income home costs at least R4m, people spend their lives trying to pretend they don't live in a desert. So-cal has a severe water shortage (so bad they're about to start polluting the pacific even more by building a new desalination plant), yet all over So-cal, sprinklers go off in regular cycles all night long. The first hits when I arrive home at 22:00, the next is at midnight. It goes again at 02:00, and again at 04:00. Lawns are so green they're almost blue - contractors use poisonous dye to make them look alive where they shouldn't grow at all. The poison seeps into the water table.

Then once the grass grows - at an unnatural pace thanks to artificial fertilizers - it is cut as short as a US Marine's hair every week, using weed eaters – noisy, polluting, ugly machines. And then the debris are blown into a pile using petrol-powered leaf blowers. Cause nobody here has ever heard of a rake, or a lawn mower. God forbid...

But the noise in the world and the noise in your head can just get too much. Yes, I know, #richpeopleproblems #whitepeopleproblems #firstworldproblems. All true. I come from Cape Town - a city with a mountain in the middle of it. I love nature with its mess and bugs and peace. I love cities with their sirens and chaos and glam. It's the stuff in between that bugs me.

So yesterday morning, the lawn sprinklers went off again at 02:00 in So-Cal's endless suburbia, I woke up, packed the car and started driving. I had planned to leave at 05:00, but I couldn't wait another minute.

Making it through the desperate birth of LA traffic in the dark, I kept driving North, stopping for breakfast in Santa Barbara. All very cool in theory. Problem was, I was growing more and more tired as the sun rose. I kept questioning whether to drive on the left or right... the sunlight felt too bright and closing my eyes seemed like a great idea for a split second.

Woah. I pulled off at a State Beach, paid the $10 entry fee, and found a shady parking spot, overlooking the beautiful blue pacific. It was 09:00. Wild wheat blew in the breeze. The ocean breathed like a giant, exhausted yogi. Kids played in the campsites, torturing and being tortured, like children before them, as their parents cooked bacon.

I flattened the seats and lay down on top of a couple of dirty furniture-pads left over from a film set, the cool sunlight nurturing me. I swear I even heard real live bees and the calls of birds that weren't pigeons. Bliss. Escape. As my ears grew sharper, hearing further and further and further away, I fell slowly asleep and then...



Okay, it stopped...

                                VRR! VrrRrrrRRRRRR!
Perfection was shattered.

I stuck my head out the back of my jeep. About a hundred feet away, The woman with the weed eater worked away for an hour or so, clearing the bushes, grasses and other rebels, so they didn't make the nature reserve parking lot untidy by "ugh", like, you know, growing leaves and stuff.

Even in a national park, a nature reserve, nature has to be tamed, subdued and sanitised.

I realise that human beings have a combative relationship with nature. It's called... Survival. But I've never experienced it in such extremes as I have here in the USA. Of all the differences between Americans and me, it's the hardest one to accept. Why the obsessive culling and cultivation? Why the ultra-pasteurisation. Why the constant spraying and wiping? Just grow an immune system already people! The bugs that don't kill you will only make you stronger.

People accuse Americans of playing at World Police. Well, I'd say Nature's Janitor's more like it.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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